“Bop marked the point at which both the musicians and their audience became widely conscious that jazz was an art form. For the first time serious listening to the music, especially the improvised solos, became primary. The musicians concerned themselves, for the most part, more with developing the technical aspects of the music and increasing its aesthetic qualities, rather than just creating something that would enlarge their audience, and therefore their wallets.” - John Andrews, reviewing Scott Deveaux’s The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History
“Broke the door at First Baptist, played the pews like project benches / The light was beautiful streaming through the broken entrance.” - Billy Woods, “War Stories” from Shrines
What is the equivalent of bebop today? What music of today’s age almost entirely eschews the role of mere entertainment, challenging the audience instead of just pleasuring it? In general, I don’t think it’s rap music. Indeed, some of my favorite rap music of the past decade has been the kind that isolates and mercilessly targets the pleasure principle — Playboi Carti’s delirious coos over Pi’erre Bourne’s swirling synthetic beats, Kanye’s provocatively ignorant confessionals, arguably even Tyler’s lush soul dreamscapes. Lots of this music was original and thought-provoking if you threw yourself into it, but it was also undeniably a vibe. The vast majority of rap music today, including the good artists I’ve just mentioned, produce their music at least in part with Spotify playlists in mind. It can be layered, it can be intricate, but it has to be a vibe, something you can leave in the background as you shower as much as you can analyze in a music review.
But then there’s Armand Hammer. For seven years now, Elucid and Billy Woods have gone beyond the pleasure principle. Their verses aren’t vibes, they’re literature, and I don’t mean that in the insufferable Eminem-fan sense as a shorthand for “verbose” (characterized succinctly online as “lyrical spiritual miracle” rapping). No, I mean that if you tune out of what they’re frantically spitting, you’ve missed it. Hooks and melodies are rare, thumping beats rarer still; if you don’t pay attention to the ins and outs of their winding, nihilistic sermons, if you don’t give the duo back as much as they’re giving you, their music has limited returns.
On Shrines, Armand Hammer continue more than ever to make the wager that music can be more than the transactional delivery of what people already (think they) want. Opening track “Bitter Cassava” kicks proceedings off with a cut up sample of chromatic strings over arrhythmic, non-quantized drums. It doesn’t lock into a steady 4/4 groove by the time Billy Woods starts rapping, in fact it never does — it loops are jarring, disorienting. Elucid caps his first verse with a grunted “I’ll give you what you need,” the final word smudging away with tape delay, and it feels like an encapsulation of Armand Hammer’s vision for Shrines.
I’ll give you what you need. The lyrical content of Shrines is certainly bitter medicine, especially in this boiling-point June of anti-racist struggle for which the duo just happened to schedule the release. Billy Woods is the classical depressive of the duo, his forceful and direct bars detailing a world in which the bad guys always win, in which any positive state is a dangerous illusion. On “War Stories,” he outlines a vignette where the criminal justice system’s doling out of suffering is essentially arbitrary, rooted in personal cruelty: Even the prosecutor considered dropping the whole thing / But then she said, "nah", a stroke of the pen / A flick of the wrist, a shiv in the neck instead of the ribs.
Elucid, meanwhile, is more abstract and psychedelic, diving into unfathomably dense wordplay, phonological trickery, surreal imagery: I'm with death, flippin' quarters / Grillin' swordfish on the back of a black orca. The chemistry between the two rappers is integral to the music. Just as Elucid’s knotty, literary psyche-trawling starts to collapse with its own density, Billy Woods jumps onto the beat with a crystal clear, razor sharp barb of a lyric.
I mean, how can music like this not be considered literature? The duo’s use of intertextuality and historical reference is immense. In “Flavor Flav,” Elucid travels back in time to the Orangeburg Massacre in order to fight back against the cops and release his own stress burden. Had to go back to lighten the load of the allostatic... Or how about in “Parables,” where Billy Woods constructs this dream-like scene which just hints at politics, associations of assassination, without making anything explicit:
At the wake, awakened a dream / The motorcade curved like a snake through the streets / Black men in black suits, heavy heat / White handkerchief / The podium thick with liars and thieves.
The underlying music, meanwhile, is rarely a solid foundation on which the rappers can roam freely. The beats are pieces of subjective expression in and of themselves — Charms’s dusty, melancholic flute samples, Solarium’s shimmering, propulsive string stabs, Kenny Segal’s surprisingly emotional electro landscape on “Dead Cars.” Often they dissolve into brief spoken word samples. The music shifts and stutters, sighing disembodied female voices often weaving around hauntologically. Hip hop music like this is often interpreted as “classic”or “old-school”, but the music in that era of rap was utilitarian and to the point. They call it boom bap for a reason. On Shrines, though, the music rarely booms and baps, and when it does on songs like the sublimely menacing “Leopards,” it’s couched in distorted bass guitar and shimmering jazz fusion hi-hats. As Billy Woods notes on that song, there’s more than a few ways to skin cats.
On Shrines, Armand Hammer share the stage with featured rappers more than ever before, mostly to good effect. R.A.P. Ferreira’s feature on “Dead Cars” is confident, evocative and criminally short, which is probably the best way to utilize features and leave the listener wanting more. Pink Siifu and Earl Sweatshirt are used similarly, while Quelle Chris is allowed a little longer to wax surreal on “Frida.” I could get into the individual highlights and shortcomings of the various features, but it’s probably more illuminating to look at them as a whole.
The guest list on Shrines is a who’s who of rappers who continue to try, to put maximum effort into their craft as something serious, something that isn’t just entertainment. Obviously it isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s striking that on their album with the most breakthrough potential yet, Armand Hammer cede the floor to so many fellow travelers. It suggests that despite the duo’s lyrical bleakness —bleakness which often seems to cross over into pitch-black nihilism — this darkness suggests some positive potential. In the midst of tear gas, suffocation and the National Guard, people who care about their art as capital “A” Art are still coming together and challenging each other to be better. It makes us listeners better in the process, too.